Divvying up a Monster Job
by Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times, December 20, 2003
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Calif. -- At Polytechnic High School here, everyone wants a
piece of Principal Shawn Ashley.
They all also want a piece of Principal Gwen Mack.
One minute, a teacher is complaining about kids loitering in the
halls. The next, an aide is hauling in a boy caught in the
girls’ bathroom. Then a custodian is griping about co-workers.
Ashley and Mack take it all in stride. Inside their office, with
two gray cubicles and two names on the door, they divvy up a
monster job usually heaped on the shoulders of a single
Ashley tackles athletics, activities, student discipline and
school repairs. Mack covers curriculum, counseling, testing and
Together, this unlikely duo runs a campus the size of a dozen
football fields, where the green lawns of the central quad are
trampled each day beneath the feet of 4,300 teenagers.
“I couldn’t do this by myself,” said Ashley, 49, a Poly High
graduate who high-fives football players on campus as if they’re
Mack, 59, the quieter one who often speaks just above a whisper,
added: “If we want to do a decent job, we need to divide our
This buddy system has transformed management in Long Beach’s six
high schools and turned California’s third-largest school system
into a laboratory for educators nationwide desperate to stem the
flight of overworked and overwhelmed principals.
“I think what you’re seeing in those high schools are prototypes
for the future,” said Michael Usdan, a senior fellow at the
Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. “It’s an
important story beyond Long Beach.”
Long Beach has been using co-principals for a decade. Now other
school districts have taken a page from its playbook with the
hope of freeing principals to spend more time in classrooms.
School systems elsewhere in California and in Massachusetts,
Vermont and other places are experimenting with the same
Not everyone is sold.
High schools in Pasadena and Santa Monica switched to
co-principals a few years ago, only to abandon the idea because
of concerns that lines of authority were confused. Some
educators elsewhere say having two principals creates
unnecessary turf wars.
Even supporters concede that the management model depends
largely on the personalities of the two school leaders and the
way they get along with each other.
But in districts large and small, urban and rural, educators
widely agree that something must be done to lighten the load on
While they handle such traditional chores as keeping their
schools clean and making sure classes have enough textbooks,
principals now face significant new state and federal pressures
to raise test scores and keep their campuses free from drugs and
They are expected to leave no child behind, as the new federal
education law commands. Failure can cost them their jobs.
Principals are often the first to arrive on campus and the last
to leave; sometimes they work three or four nights a week,
attending football games, banquets, plays, concerts and an
assortment of other events. It’s a marathon schedule that blurs
into 70- and 80-hour work weeks.
“It burns people out,” said George Manthey, who trains
principals for the Association of California School
Administrators. “To do the job well at a large high school is
That concern is magnified by the expectation that nearly half of
the nation’s 35,000 secondary school principals will retire in
the next five years, according to the National Association of
Secondary School Principals. The anticipated exodus has set off
alarms among school district leaders across the United States
and spawned an array of recruitment, retention and training
District officials in Long Beach say their home-grown reform
offers a practical and relatively inexpensive solution.
Having two principals means someone is always available to
answer questions, sign forms and make decisions, they say. It
means two people are available to handle the thousand little
decisions that land on a principal’s desk at a school with 250
instructors and other employees.
Yes, most high schools have vice principals and assistant
principals to handle mundane duties and respond to visitors. But
parents, teachers and others often aren’t satisfied with the
second in command.
“Everyone wants the principal,” Ashley said.
On a recent day, Mack and two of Poly High’s four assistant
principals were away at a meeting designed to bolster school
efforts to increase student achievement.
That left Ashley in charge. And it was a busy day.
Even before Ashley put down his briefcase, a father appeared
with his daughter to lodge a complaint about a boy who allegedly
had exposed himself to the girl. Ashley interviewed the girl and
the boy separately. Then he met with police, who were conducting
their own investigation. (The boy was suspended and transferred
to another campus. He also was arrested on suspicion of indecent
The incident consumed Ashley’s morning. In the midst of it,
another parent called to ask how to get a bus pass for her
daughter; a student stopped by to pick up a letter of
recommendation for college; and a teacher approached Ashley to
complain that a colleague was letting students go before the
class period bell rang. Ashley promised to take care of the
concern, and spoke to the offending teacher a few minutes later.
“I could be trapped in my office all day long,” Ashley said, as
he grabbed his sunglasses and made his way through knots of
students to get a Diet Pepsi at the lunch pavilion.
The next day, Ashley was more than happy for Mack to return.
After a morning spent on paperwork and meetings with
administrators and counselors, the two finally had time for what
they want most: to visit classrooms and talk with students and
“If you are a sole administrator and you’re not in the
classroom, how do you know if something’s going wrong?” asked
Marc Hyatt, a history teacher and the school’s teachers union
representative, who is pleased with the dual principal system.
“It makes it easier to know when a teacher is having a problem.”
Students aren’t as clear about the division of labor -- or that
two principals run the school. When asked to identify Poly
High’s principal, several students named Ashley, who has been at
the campus for eight years -- six more than Mack. One student
didn’t know who Mack was. Most said it didn’t matter whether the
school had one or two principals.
“What is more important is having plenty of adult supervision on
campus,” said junior Samantha Heep.
Ashley and Mack, who have worked together for two years and earn
$117,000 each, oversee a sprawling and diverse campus, where
about half of the 4,300 students are black or Hispanic; whites,
Asians, Filipinos and Pacific Islanders account for the rest.
The principals also are in charge of a nearby satellite campus
with an additional 400 students.
Poly High is solid academically, with test scores that place it
among the top half of campuses statewide. It is known for its
roster of celebrity graduates, including actress Cameron Diaz,
baseball great Tony Gwynn and rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg.
It has a lesser-known claim to fame in education circles as the
first campus in Long Beach to use multiple principals -- in
1992. The principal at the time, H.J. Green, feeling besieged by
all his responsibilities, persuaded his bosses to let him share
the position with two colleagues. “It made the job doable,”
Green, now retired, recalled. “It took a lot of pressure off.”
In subsequent years, the school system expanded the idea to all
its high schools, although keeping it to two principals per
campus. The change cost about $15,000 to $20,000 per school
annually, mainly for replacing a vice principal position with a
Not every pairing, though, has been a success.
“A co-principalship is not a place for an ego trip,” said Mel
Collins, Ashley’s partner at Poly High for five years, until the
district asked him to fill a vacant principal slot at nearby
Ashley and Mack say their contrasting styles suit their duties
in a school where some tasks depend on a soft touch and others
require a forceful hand. She is comfortable interviewing
candidates for a chemistry teaching slot or evaluating a
Japanese language instructor from the back of a classroom. He is
skilled at pushing workers to fix, for example, a malfunctioning
filtration system that turned water murky in the school’s indoor
“I’m more passive -- the quiet type,” Mack said. “Shawn is more
Although they operate in their own spheres, Ashley and Mack
often talk late in the afternoons in their office, after the
school empties, about their most difficult problems -- for
example, how to write up a teacher who seems to be floundering
or how to tighten security at nighttime football games.
The two never argue in public and say they resolve disagreements
by deferring to each other’s expertise. When the two debated
recently about how to allot time after school for teacher
training, Ashley let Mack make the final call.
“Shawn can’t do everything, and I can’t do everything,” Mack
This type of power sharing has caught on elsewhere. Glendale
school officials, impressed by what they heard about in Long
Beach, took the same approach in their high schools about seven
“It’s like a professional marriage,” said Kevin Welsh, the
co-principal of Glendale’s Hoover High School and the first of
the district’s administrators to divide the job. “It’s sure nice
when you have a partner you can trust.”
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